This is another entry in the usually-weekly series Get to Know a Brazilian.
This week, we turn from the political activism among women during Brazil’s military dictatorship to look at an increasingly important figure in Brazil’s religious iconography: Nhá Chica.
Nhá Chica was born Francisca de Paula de Jesus in the interior town of Santo Antônio do Rio das Mortes Pequeno in Minas Gerais in the early 1800s; though her name appears in the baptismal registries in 1810, it is not clear if that is when she was actually born. Nhá Chica was from a slave family in Minas Gerais. Although slavery in Brazil’s colonial period had originally concentrated on the sugar plantations and mills in Brazil’s Northeast, the Dutch occupation of Pernambuco and surrounding areas between 1630 and 1654 broke Brazil’s effective sugar monopoly and transformed the economy. By the early-1700s, gold and diamonds were found in Minas Gerais, and the slave economy began to shift to Brazil’s southeast. Minas Gerais [literally, "General Mines"] became an increasingly important source of wealth for the Portuguese crown, while Rio de Janeiro, the main port for the transportation of slaves from Africa to Minas Gerais and São Paulo, became a booming commercial center, leading to the colonial capital relocating from Salvador to Rio in 1763. Though the mining boom had mostly gone bust by the 1800s, the rise of coffee production in Minas Gerais, São Paulo, and Rio de Janeiro perpetuated the existence of slavery in the Southeast. Indeed, throughout the 1800s up until abolition in 1888, Brazil’s internal slave trade increasingly saw the relocation of slaves from the Northeast to the Southeast, where people like Nhá Chica’s family lived.
By the age of 10, Nhá Chica was an orphan. Before her mother died, however, she asked Nhá Chica to dedicate herself to God and to caring for others. Following her mother’s request, Nhá Chica refused to live with her brother, instead choosing to live alone and allegedly repeatedly refusing marriage proposals. In the city of Baependi, where her family had relocated before she was orphaned, she gathered donations and constructed a chapel dedicated to one of the many permutations of the Virgin Mary, Nossa Senhora da Conceição (“Our Lady of Conception”). From there, she offered advice, prayers, and counsel to those who visited. Although humble in origin (she was not only poor but also illiterate, a situation common to slaves and their descendants), she gained a reputation for the quality of her counsel and the effectiveness of her prayers. Over time, more and more people came to her chapel seeking her out. Her willingness to welcome any and all people into her home or chapel, including the poorest in the area, led to her reputation as the “Mother of the Poor” in the area. In spite of her growing fame, she remained illiterate and impoverished, using all donations and gifts given for her chapel. She continued her life’s work for decades, continuing to live a solitary life, finally dying in 1895.
Her work made her a popular figure in Brazil’s interior, and decades after her death, people continued to travel to the chapel to pray and seek spiritual comfort or aid. In the process, Nhá Chica’s reputation grew, and she gained increasing symbolic importance to Brazilian Catholics. Given her status as a popular (rather than official) saint, the local Diocese began to investigate, launching early ecclesiastical proceedings in 1993. After a series of stops and starts, the case has recently received attention from the Vatican, which beatified Nhá Chica this past week, based on the recognition last year of a miracle attributed to Nhá Chica.
With Pope Francis granting Nhá Chica the status of “Blessed,” she, like Oscar Romero, now doctrinally has the authority to intervene on behalf of those who pray for her. Thus, Nhá Chica has become the first Afro-Brazilian woman to be granted the title of “blessed” in the Catholic Church, making her a unique figure in Brazil’s Catholic Church.
As I restart this series, I want to turn to Brazilian anthropologist Gilberto Freyre, one of the more important writers on race and ethnicity in Brazil in the twentieth century, both for better and for worse.
Freyre was born in the northeastern state of Pernambuco to one of the older Portuguese families in Brazil. As a child, he spent time both in Recife (one of the most important ports of colonial Brazil) and in the Pernambucan countryside, where his time spent on old sugar plantations would come to play a major role in his future academic development. As a young adult, Freyre traveled to the United States, where he obtained his bachelors degree at Baylor University. At the age of twenty, he relocated to New York City, where he studied anthropology at Columbia University under the famed anthropologist Franz Boas, whose ideas on cultural anthropology and criticisms of evolutionary models and racial determinants would play a key role in Freyre’s later writings. While in the United States, Freyre began to combine his US anthropological training with his childhood in Brazil, focusing on racial identity, culture, and history in Brazil, beginning with a tentative foray into these topics with his article “Social Life in Brazil in the Middle of the Nineteenth Century,” which appeared in an early volume of the Hispanic American Historical Review in 1922.
Although Freyre had begun to make a name for himself as a Brazilian intellectual, it was with his 1933 work Casa-grande e senzala (translated into English as The Masters and the Slaves) that he became best-known. Challenging positivist philosophical narratives that portrayed Brazilians as inherently “inferior” due to their mixture between indigenous, African, and Portuguese people dating back to the colonial era, Freyre argued that it was this exact mixture through sexual relations (relations whose violence Freyre glossed over) that made Brazilians free from any source of racism. According to Freyre, through this history of mixture, Brazilians had acquired the best traits of three races, while the physical markers had blurred beyond the point of easy identification, making Brazil a land where racism could not exist. In making this argument, Freyre contrasted Brazil to the United States, where he pointed to the racism that emerged from strict racial dichotomies that he saw in his time spent there, particularly in the Deep South. Contrasting Brazil with the United States, scholars would later describe what they imagined to be a racially harmonious Brazil as a “racial democracy,” a term that is all too often incorrectly attributed to Freyre; although he himself later adopted the term, it appeared nowhere in Casa-grande e senzala.
This argument would have a profound impact on how scholars in both Brazil and the United States thought and talked about race for generations to come, setting up an often-frustrating narrative debate over “whose racism was worse” that failed to address the complex racial relations of either country. Ironically, though, in declaring Brazil to be free of the types of racism found in the US, he almost completely overlooked indigenous peoples in his first version of Casa-grande e senzala, focusing instead on Afro-descendants and Europeans and thereby reifying the idea of the “disappeared” indigenous person as a historical character with no relevance to the present (a conceptualization that recent ethnographic work shows continues to the present, with detrimental impacts on Brazil’s indigenous peoples). Additionally, according to Freyre in Casa-grande e senzala (and taking a page from his education with Boas), any shortcomings of Brazilian society were not due to race, but to cultural and historical obstacles.
Freyre certainly was not the first Brazilian intellectual who wrestled with narratives of Brazil’s racial past. Euclides da Cunha’s classic Os Sertões (in English, Rebellion in the Backlands), showed an ambivalent approach to the idea of racial mixing, one that did not necessarily embrace Brazil’s mixed history but that was also increasingly hesitant to condemn it. Other Brazilian intellectuals throughout the 1910s and 1920s also had begun to challenge past narratives of race and celebrate Brazil’s diverse background. In this regard, Freyre was not the first to make such claims (in spite of many erroneous claims otherwise after the publication of Casa-grande e senzala). However, Casa-grande e senzala came out at a time when a new sense of Brazilian nationalism was beginning to emerge, making his work particularly useful to politicians, bureaucrats, and intellectuals who wanted to push a new identity of a unified Brazil. His message particularly fit well with the nationalist and centralizing messages of president Getúlio Vargas, who sought to recreate Brazilian government and society after the deterioration of Brazil’s federative First Republic (1889-1930). Additionally, Freyre’s argument was in many ways conservative, celebrating what Freyre imagined to be a hierarchical and patriarchal past, in which order and privilege among the agrarian elites (like those on the sugar plantation he spent time on as a child); this argument was appealing to a number of conservative elites throughout Brazil, giving his book a unique heft that his forbears had not necessarily had. In the transnational context, Casa-grande e senzala also came at a time of broader re-evaluations of ethnicity and race in other parts of Latin America, including works such as José Vasconcelos’s La Raza Cosmica (The Cosmic Race) and writings on race by Cuban writers Fernando Ortíz and, at the end of the nineteenth century, José Martí.
With the fame and respect garnered from Casa-grande e senzala, Freyre published several more works, including Sobrados e Mucambos (in English, The Mansions and the Shanties) in 1936, which focused on the decline of Brazilian slavery and the Brazilian aristocratic class in the 19th century, and Ordem e Progresso (Order and Progres) in 1957, which analyzed the late-nineteenth transition from an empire to a republic. In these works, Freyre revealed an increasingly conservative tendencies, as evidenced by his support of the Salazar dictatorship in Portugal, tendencies that became even clearer in 1964, when he quickly came out in support of the military dictatorship that overthrew President João Goulart.
By the latter part of the twentieth century, Freyre’s arguments regarding Brazil’s patriarchal past and a society free of racial tensions increasingly came under attack. A new wave of social scientists and Afro-Brazilian activists began not only to criticize Freyre’s arguments regarding an absence of racism in Brazil, but to even fault the popularity of the idea of Brazil as a “racial democracy” as a myth that hid very real racial differences and prejudices within Brazilian society. With Freyre’s support for and ties to a military dictatorship that did little to address real socio-economic or racial divisions in the country, Afro-Brazilian intellectuals and social scientists in both Brazil and the United States suggested that the “myth of racial democracy” had done much greater harm to Brazil by allowing Brazilians to deny any sense of racism even when it still existed. As they argued, it was even more difficult to undo a problem that many people refused to acknowledge existed, a refusal that drew in no small part on Freyre’s arguments in Casa-grande e senzala.
In spite of these criticisms and the emergence of new questions and methods of analysis of race and ethnicity in Brazil, Freyre remained celebrated up until his death in 1987. In 1983 in particular, as Casa-grande e senzala turned 50, Freyre was the subject of a variety of homages and celebrations throughout Brazil. At his death at 87, he was still a vaunted figure, celebrated for his contributions to Brazilian thought, writing, and national identity in many quarters. It is only in the last couple of decades that scholars and intellectuals have fully begun to more critically analyze and consider Freyre’s role in Brazilian writing and thinking. in an attempt to move beyond the questions and arguments Freyre offered and to provide new and more nuanced analyses. Indeed, the fact that Freyre still looms large in the scholarship, even in works on Brazil that are critical of the Freyrean model and narrative, shows just how far Gilberto Freyre’s writings and ideas on race and Brazilian history reached, in Brazil and beyond.
Given the eventful and busy week and light blogging, this is the second update on news stories from around Latin America today. (You can read the first one from earlier today here.)
-The Dominican Republic held elections this weekend, with Danilo Medina defeating former president Hipolito Mejia in a hotly-contested election.
-A loophole in Chilean electoral law has allowed over 1,000 people whom the dictatorial state of Augusto Pinochet “disappeared” to vote. A new law that does not require people over 18 to register to vote in person has led to rights activists registering the victims of the regime, creating a new space and arena in which the ongoing struggles over human rights and nation and efforts to remember the regime’s repressive past can take place in Chile.
-Subway workers in São Paulo have gone on strike, demanding a pay raise for their work and leading to a shutdown of a subway system that serves more than four million people each day in what is South America’s largest city.
-Meanwhile, in Canada, nearly 4,800 railroad workers have walked out on negotiations, leading to a shutdown of the Canadian Pacific Railway. While the walkout’s causes are as yet unclear, the move will certainly impact the Canadian economy, which depends heavily on railway transportation to transport goods.
-Argentine police found and disarmed a small bomb that was left in a theater where Colombian ex-president Álvaro Uribe was set to talk. The discovery came less than one week after another bomb attack that wounded 39 people, including Uribe’s former Secretary of the Interior, and killed two more.
-A Brazilian pilot ejected a passenger who made sexist and offensive remarks upon learning that his pilot was a woman. One can’t help but think that, of all the people you might want to anger, the person in charge of safely flying the jet you are in is not one of those people.
-Three Guatemalan prosecutors and four police officers have been arrested based on allegations of having ties to the drug cartels that are increasingly expanding in Guatemala. (H/t to Mike.)
-Brazil’s Congress has passed a new slave labor law that allows for harsher punishments for landowners who force poor Brazilians to work in slave-like conditions. The new law allows the government to confiscate the property of, fine, and even imprison for eight years those found in violation of labor codes in Brazil.
-Colombia and Venezuela are working together to strengthen the militaries’ presence in the border region between the two countries in an attempt to track down Colombian guerrillas who attacked and killed 12 Colombian soldiers this week.
-The UN is attempting an investigation of Cuba regarding the deaths of prisoners and repression of opposition groups in Cuba and is demanding the country provide information on its prison system and its treatment of prisoners and dissidents.
-In the ongoing struggle over citizenship rights of Brazil’s urban poor, Rio de Janeiro’s government is finally giving land titles to residents of favelas for their homes.